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Left, Right and Centre (1959)


This comedy stars Ian Carmichael as Robert Wilcot, a zoologist and explorer turned TV personality, who has decided to run for Parliament. Wilcot will stand as the Conservative Party candidate for the Parliamentary constituency of Earndale. The area was his childhood home and the location of Wilcot Priory, the family seat and current residence of his uncle, Lord Wilcot (Alastair Sim).

Robert Wilcot is confident of his prospects in the election, and doesn't think he will have too much trouble against the Labour Party candidate, a "bluestocking battleaxe" from the London School of Economics. Especially as he can deploy the most potent new political weapon of the age - his television fame. Wilcot swapped zoology and exploration for the life of a celebrity and TV personality on a popular panel game show called What on Earth Was That?

On the train up to Earnley, the biggest town in the area, Wilcot meets an attractive young woman, Stella (Patricia Bredin). They get along famously and, hoping to impress her, he tells her of his plans to become the area's new Member of Parliament. 

But Wilcot is a little too indiscreet, telling his companion that he doesn't know much about politics and hasn't even lived in Earndale since he was eight years old. He explains that in the old days his aristocratic family wouldn't even bother with all this election nonsense. Earndale was a "rotten borough" with the local MP chosen by Lord Wilcot and the vote fixed by the Wilcot family. Of course, he tells her, he won't be mentioning that on the campaign trail.

Ian Carmichael as Robert Wilcot

Wilcot's attempts to impress an attractive woman backfire when it turns out that (did you guess?) his travelling companion is Stella Stoker, the prospective Labour Party candidate for Earndale, and Wilcot's rival in the election. Relations between the two now turn decidedly frosty, and the press derive much humour from their photos of the unsuspecting Wilcot carrying his rival's luggage for her off the train.

A dog-eat-dog political campaign is now set into motion, with each candidate aided by their local fixers, Harding-Pratt (Richard Wattis) for the Conservatives and Bert Glimmer (Eric Barker) for Labour. The two rivals attempt to undermine and discredit each other's campaign and Wilcot finds that his television fame doesn't always turn into votes on the doorstep.

As the two candidates go on the campaign trail they have to go through the traditional rigmarole of making stump speeches, knocking on doors and kissing babies. Then the two candidates start competing directly, with the Labour team resorting to spoiler tactics, appearing at a factory where Wilcot is giving a speech and drowning him out.

Soon there is another complicating factor. Despite his rivalry with Stella Stoker, Wilcot comes to find his opposite number increasingly attractive. It seems that he's taken the Labour Party posters, with their slogan "Stella is the girl for you", a little too literally. 

When Wilcot's feelings start to gradually be reciprocated by his rival, Harding-Pratt and his Labour opposite, Bert Glimmer, realise that they must take decisive action to break up the nascent romance, or the election campaign will turn into a fiasco.

Harding-Pratt (Richard Wattis), Wilcot and Annabel (Moyra Fraser)

Left, Right and Centre was produced by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat and written and directed by Sidney Gilliat. The two men had enjoyed considerable success with dramas (Millions Like UsLondon Belongs to Me) and thrillers (I See a Dark StrangerState SecretGreen for Danger) in the 1940s, before turning to comedy, achieving enormous popular success with the St. Trinian's films in the 1950s.

Frank Launder took the lead on the St. Trinian's series and was the one more usually associated with comedy. Sidney Gilliat often directed the pair's dramas and thrillers, like Green for Danger (1946) and State Secret (1950). Here, though, he turned to comedy and showed a similar talent for the genre as Launder.

Launder and Gilliat's comedy films weren't usually that satirical, but Left, Right and Centre, with its political comedy, sees Gilliat encroach onto the territory of the pair's contemporary rivals John and Roy Boulting. 

Alastair Sim takes a supporting role, but gets co-star billing

The Boulting brothers made a series of satires on British institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Private's Progress in 1956 and reaching the peak of their commercial and critical success in 1959 with I'm All Right, Jack, a satire on industry, lazy workers, obstinate trade unionists and corrupt bosses.

As well as moving into political satire, Sidney Gilliat also cast the Boutlings' regular star, Ian Carmichael, as the lead in Left, Right and Centre. The portrayal of Carmichael's character as an innocent abroad in the cutthroat, Machiavellian world of politics means that this is very close to the types of unworldly naifs he played in his comedies for the Boultings. 

In those films he discovered the reality of life in the Army (Private's Progress), the law (Brothers in Law), academia (Lucky Jim) and industry (I'm All Right, Jack). So at first glance, the film might look like another in the Boulting brothers' series of satires. And, despite also using some of Launder and Gilliat's own familiar actors, like Alastair Sim, Richard Wattis and Eric Barker, Left, Right and Centre could easily be mistaken for a Boultings film. 

But, given that this is a Launder and Gilliat film, the satire in Left, Right and Centre is quite mild and generally of the "It makes no difference who gets elected" variety. This attitude is summed up by the opening credits, which are nicely designed to look like election posters, and end with the quote "A plague o' both their houses" from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Richard Wattis as Harding-Pratt

True to form, the two main political parties are shown as being not much different from each other, and in fact even indistinguishable at times, in Left, Right and Centre. In one sequence, the wrong speakers are delivered to each other's political rallies without either speaker, or anyone in the audience, noticing. The Labour speaker is given a rousing reception at the Conservative rally and vice versa, mainly because they both give almost identical speeches.

In addition to its digs at the political parties, the film also takes pot shots at pompous TV personalities and the turning of Britain's stately homes into tourist attractions. When Carmichael as Wilcot arrives at Wilcot Priory, he finds that he now has to go through a turnstile and fight his way through the crowds of daytrippers, slot machines and amusement arcades first, as his uncle has turned his ancestral home into a money-making enterprise.

Wilcot discovers that it was his uncle who originally suggested him as a Parliamentary candidate, in order to boost interest in the family seat at Wilcot Priory. Lord Wilcot goes further, hosting a political hustings event at the Priory and using it as an excuse to bring in yet more visitors, turning his nephew's candidature and the election campaign into part of his booming business enterprise.

Wilcot discovers some of the changes at Wilcot Priory

Wilcot even finds that he now has to put a shilling in the meter to keep the light on in his bedroom. Fortunately, his uncle is kind enough to give him a shilling to use ("You can pay me back in the morning"). Meanwhile, the chauffeur is employed to play a fake headless ghost, for the benefit of the American tourists staying at the house overnight.

Huge bills for inheritance taxes saw many of Britain's stately homes come under threat in the 1950s, with some passed onto the National Trust in deals to avoid having to pay, and others opened up as tourist attractions. So Lord Wilcot's opening of Wilcot Priory to coach loads of visitors is quite plausible, and the bouncy castles and slot machines not that much of an exaggeration. 

Wilcot thinks that he can at least count on the support of his uncle in the election, but Lord Wilcot regretfully informs him that, as a businessman catering for coach loads of daytrippers, he is now strictly neutral when it comes to politics.

The panel game What on Earth Was That? is hosted by Eamonn Andrews, a real TV personality of the time, best known for presenting the British version of This is Your Life. The panel includes Gilbert Harding, a big television star of the 1950s, known especially for his irascible appearances on What's My Line? The film shows Wilcot and Harding having to deal with hordes of autograph-seeking young women when they leave the studio, although it's doubtful if Gilbert Harding really had to fight off that many young women in real life.

Anthony Sharp and Richard Wattis as local Conservatives

The film portrays fame in the newly popular medium of television as intoxicating and mesmerising. Unsurprisingly, films of the 1950s tended to be sniffy or hostile about cinema's big new rival television.

Robert Wilcot is shown as being a decent sort, a serious man who has been a zoologist and an Antarctic explorer. But he has not been improved by fame or by his career in television and his celebrity has given him a distinctly inflated ego.

This is particularly obvious when he attempts to get Stella Stoker to recognise him when they meet on the train, turning the newspaper with his picture in it to face her so that she might see it, and casually dropping mentions of his exploring and television work into the conversation. 

As their exchanges deteriorate slightly and Wilcot's efforts to impress fail to come off, he tells Stoker indignantly "My name is familiar in every home". To which she replies "You could say the same for almost any detergent", deliberately mocking television fame by linking it with the much less glamorous business of TV advertising.

Moyra Fraser as the adoring Annabel

Wilcot's model girlfriend, Annabel (Moyra Fraser) is obviously an avid TV watcher, and is entranced and attracted by his celebrity more than by his actual personality. Wilcot himself is aware of this all too well. When a television news crew appears to film him meeting her as she arrives in Earnley, she is less excited by their reunion than by the presence of actual television cameras.

Left, Right and Centre draws on a tradition of films about outsiders who are drawn into politics, only to be disillusioned by what they find there, a genre exemplified by the 1939 Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The film also satirises the political prejudices of the voters, with Irene Handl appearing as a housewife who is full of praise and devotion for her television favourite, Robert Wilcot, when he appears on the doorstep. Until he tries to confirm that he can in fact rely on her vote, at which point she suddenly acts like a married woman who has just received a very improper suggestion. 

Eric Barker as Labour's Bert Glimmer

When their two candidates start to show a romantic interest in each other, Richard Wattis and Eric Barker, as the rival election agents, scheme to break the pair up, meeting to discuss their plot in the aptly named pub "The Man with a Load of Mischief". The fact that the two agents are able to work together, albeit reluctantly, reinforces the film's message that both sides are pretty much the same.

The two arrange to have their candidates' current partners brought up to Earnley. This means not only the airheaded Annabel, but also Stella Stoker's boyfriend Bill. The usually thoughtful Jack Hedley is unusually cast here as Bill Hemingway, a body builder and physical trainer who is Stella's would-be fiancĂ©. 

Left, Right and Centre is self-aware enough to play the scenes of the candidates falling for each other as overly flowery and implausible, meaning that the film is almost as much a satire of romantic clichĂ©s as it is of politics. It also has a twist ending of sorts, to stop the romantic and political capers from becoming too predictable. 

Advertising works: Carmichael and Wattis
with Labour's election poster


The film benefits from some pleasing performances and Alastair Sim is good value, as always, as Wilcot's scheming uncle. Richard Wattis is droll as the election agent with the unfortunate name of Harding-Pratt, although understandably he prefers the abbreviation "HP", while Carmichael brings his regular, likeable persona to Robert Wilcot, making him sympathetic, despite his obvious pretensions.

Patricia Bredin, who plays Stella Stoker, had been the first British entrant into the Eurovision Song Contest in 1957. She made only a few films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Launder and Gilliat's comedy The Bridal Path, released the same year as Left, Right and Centre.

The film's supporting cast also includes Gordon Harker, who had co-starred with Alastair Sim in one of his earlier successes, the three film Inspector Hornleigh series in the late 1930s and early '40s.

British poster for Left, Right and Centre

Left, Right and Centre is also notable as the last of just over a dozen films that Alastair Sim made with Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. He would be teamed again with Ian Carmichael in the comedy School for Scoundrels the following year. Both stars would increasingly turn to theatre and television over the next decade, Sim starring on television in the legal comedy Misleading Cases (1967-71) and Carmichael in The World of Wooster (1965-67) (as Bertie Wooster) and in Lord Peter Wimsey (1972-75).

Left, Right and Centre is one of Launder and Gilliat's less well known films and is a little underrated. Its political and social satire is mild, but good natured, and it doesn't rise to the heights of the best of the Boulting brothers' contemporary comedies. But the film is engaging and well performed and it makes for a droll and diverting comedy.

It's also prescient in recognising that celebrity and television fame would increasingly become an entry route into politics. A few years later Launder and Gilliat might even have made the main character become Prime Minister or, in an American equivalent, run for President. A TV personality as President? Maybe that's just too implausible.


Left, Right and Centre

Year: 1959
Genre: Comedy
Country: UK
Director: Sidney Gilliat

Cast Ian Carmichael (Robert Wilcot), Alastair Sim (Lord Wilcot), Patricia Bredin (Stella Stoker), Richard Wattis (Harding-Pratt), Eric Barker (Bert Glimmer), Jack Hedley (Bill Hemingway), Moyra Fraser (Annabel), Leslie Dwyer (Alf Stoker), Russell Waters (Mr Bray), William Kendall (Pottle), George Benson (Egerton), Anthony Sharp (Peterson), Moultrie Kelsall (Grimsby Armfield), Olwen Brookes (Mrs Samson), Gordon Harker (Hardy), John Salew (Mayor), Bill Shine (Basingstoke), Eric Chitty (Deputy Returning Officer), Hattie Jacques (Woman in car), Jeremy Hawke (TV interviewer), Redmond Phillips (Mr Smithson), Irene Handl (Mrs Maggs), John Sharp (Mr Reeves), Olaf Pooley (TV newscaster)

Screenplay Sidney Gilliat, story Sidney Gilliat, Val Valentine  Producers Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder  Cinematography Gerald Gibbs  Art director John Box  Editor Gerry Hambling  Music Humphrey Searle  Costume designer Anthony Mendleson  

Running time 95 mins (black and white)

Production company Vale Film Productions, in association with British Lion Films  Distributor British Lion (UK)


This post is part of the CMBA Politics on Film Blogathon

Comments

  1. Wow! What an fantastic article. This film is totally new to me but loving all things British, I will definitely check it out. I love their humor, so I know this will be right up my alley. Many thanks for a great post and cheers!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Delete
  2. A Launder and Gilliat film I haven't seen. Imagine that! Thanks for the introduction and interesting article.

    Here's a line from The Happiest Days of Your Life that always comes to mind during an election. Alastair Sim as the fed-up-with-women school headmaster Wetherby Pond.

    "If there is a male candidate - whether he be conservative, socialist, communist or anarchist - or, for that matter, liberal, he will have my vote."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I know you like L&G. Maybe we should start a fan club ...

      Delete
  3. This is a new one to me. An excellent post. Thanks for participating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was my pleasure. Thanks for hosting.

      Delete
  4. Dear Jay,

    This is a great article! I really enjoyed reading it. Your description of this film is really interesting. This sounds like a very interesting film. It's obviously British from the spelling of "centre" in the title. While I didn't recognize the names or faces of the leads, I recognized a few supporting actors. You wrote a very interesting review. What an apropos article for this theme! I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I nominated you for a Sunshine Blogger Award: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/26/our-second-sunshine-blogger-award/. In this post, I also invited my nominees to join two upcoming blogathons I'm hosting, The Third Annual Claude Rains Blogathon in November (https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/01/an-old-friend-is-never-an-added-guest-please-join-us-for-the-third-annual-claude-rains-blogathon/) and The 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon
    (https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/01/announcing-the-2nd-happy-holidays-blogathon/), plus our guest series, What the Code Means to Me: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/what-the-code-means-to-me/. If you could join one or more of these events, that would be wonderful. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Tiffany, that's very kind of you.

      I don't know if I'll be able to take part in your blogathons, but I hope they are successful for you.

      Delete

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